Like so many people around the world, I look forward to January, for a two-week reprieve from the cold, grey and short days of winter in the northeast of America, so I can escape to the land down under and watch the season’s first Open tournament. The anticipation of this event is keen as the sluggish days that follow the hype and excitement around Christmas and New Years wanes and the lethargic stretch of real winter begins. Tennis players await the real start of the tennis new year as the Australian Open held in Melbourne marks the serious players’ quest for a grand slam.
Melbourne looks amazing, most days being sunny and hot as it’s summer in that part of the world. The courts are hard, surfaced in a blazing blue that makes the little yellow ball seem to pop off the ground. Now is the time of year I am thankful for my husband’s taste in high-end equipment and an extra huge television screen. Watching the play in HD on 60 inches is almost…almost…as good as being there. For the two week duration of the tournament, I track the athletes, follow the draw and watch televised play wee into the morning. Since my time zone is 16 hours behind that of Australia, live matches run on deep into the night, often ending well after 3:00 am….For the passionate tennis player or just those who love the endurance, competitiveness and sheer athleticism of the game, the Australian Open wrecks havoc on “normal” schedules and sleeping patterns. But it is worth it to see as many matches as possible live; however, if it’s not doable, there are plenty of opportunities to catch up with taped matches the next day. Usually not one to turn on the television during the day, for the second and third weeks of January find me tuning in with breakfast and watching as much as possible until bedtime – whenever that hour may be. I’m certain many a person lives in a sleep-deprived haze for much of this Open experience.
Watching last night, I witnessed the unraveling of Australia’s great hope for victory, Samantha Stosur. An Ozzie player has not brought home the winner’s trophy for over 30 years and the national pressure to excel and win has never been higher. As one commentator last night stated, the Australian players – like Stosur, Hewett and Tomic – really don’t get to spend much time competing on their home turf. There are a few minor tournaments leading up to the Open and then the big event. But other than these, most pro players spend the bulk of their careers elsewhere. They ride the pro circuit around the globe in search of points and titles. So for an Aussie pro to be able to perform and deliver on her home court is huge and offers a rare chance for the fans of Austalia to see their champions up close, to watch them play live rather than on a screen. Unfortunately, that pressure to perform was too much for the uber-athlete, Stosur, last night.
She started out tight and shanking balls left and right with her usually precise and lethal forehand. Watching her, it was apparent that her timing was off and one can only speculate as to why. She did have ankle surgery two months ago to address bone spurs, so perhaps the effects of injury and surgery were in play. Also, she was playing a formidable Chinese woman, J Zheng, to whom she had lost just a week prior at a warm up event in Oz. Lastly, despite the roar of the crowd who obviously adore their single’s champ, perhaps the weight of the situation, to carry the hopes of her home country deep into the tournament, became too much. Whatever the reasons, we watched in horror and sympathy as Sam’s game continued to ride the roller coaster of feast or famine. After the shaky start, she was able to find her range and establish some rhythm, often spanking her signature serve and forehand for clean winners. But it seems each shot of brilliance was met with it dark shadow and the unforced errors mounted.
Stosur dropped the first set, 4-6, but seem to find some wheel of confidence in the second and came back to dominate Zheng 6-1….The crowd was electric and it seemed that finally Sam had conquered her demons and was well on her way to victory. At least that what it seemed. Up 5-2 in the third, playing with strength, intelligence and confidence, it looked like the match as in the bag and Sam would roll on to round 3. But this is the beauty (and terror) of tennis. It is a game of inches, of ebbs and flows, of confidence and doubt. It is game played just as much with the mind as with the body. And while Stosur’s body is more than capable to punish a tennis ball and race around a singles course for hours, something happened and it seems to have happened inside her head. Serving at 5-2, she was unable to hold and then it was 5-3. Stosur, who had broken Zheng’s serve many times, was not able to do so when it really mattered. Again, wild and erratic hits, forehands flying into the air, backhands down the line that met the net instead….All I could do was watch in heartbreak as Oz’s golden girl self-destructed. Point after point slipped through her strings and soon what was once a two-break cushion became five all….Zheng could sense the shift in Sam’s emotions, could smell the tension and nervousness that was flooding her system.
And so the race to the prize ended for Stosur with a double fault, losing the third and deciding set 7-5. She shook Zheng’s hand, packed up her bags and scurried off the court. One can only imagine the thoughts going through her head, her heart. A supremely talented singles player, she fell apart in the end and could not close out the match. My heart broke for her, for the fears and doubts that must have crept into her head as the lead began to evaporate. No matter how many years a person’s been playing, no matter the ranking or the talent, if the whisper of doubt slips in, it can wreck havoc. The legs feel heavy and the feet stop moving, The arm is leaden and to toss the ball to serve feels like a monumental task. Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body and create tension and anxiety – two emotions and physical reactions that are lethal to a player’s ability to compete. Stosur felt is last night and was helpless in the wake of her body’s reactions to her mind’s perceived fears. Obviously upset with herself and the escalating errors, she motivated herself many times to get her groove back, to hit the ball with authority as she knows she can. But in the end it was not enough. The string of games and winners in the second and third set were not enough to propel her to the win.
The world watched as Zheng picked up her game and played with skill and confidence as the third set unwound. The see-saw has tipped again and where Zhang looked to be out of the match in set two, she was back in and dominating at the end of set three. And that’s why this game is so good and so exasperating. It can shift, turn and slip through a player’s racquet so easily. A momentary lapse in concentration, a poorly played service game, a slump in energy….all of these factors enter into a match and can shift the momentum.
I wonder how Stosur feels today, how she addressed the press after the debacle on center court. I hope she accepts the fact that what happened to her can happen to everyone and finding a way to quiet the inner voices of doubt and criticism is an ongoing part of the psychology of sports. I hope she can treat herself with grace and compassion but I’ve a feeling the loss at this year’s Open will be haunting her for a long, long time.